I am not a very good neighbour.
We’ve lived in this rented house for nearly 18 months, and I know the names of just two of our neighbours. I know the old man who lives next door, who mumbles so badly I understand only about 20% of what he says. Most of our relationship is him chatting at me as I push the buggy in the front door, smiling and nodding and hoping he’s not actually saying something that requires any more of a response.
There’s a man a few doors up who is very friendly. He always stops to say hi, helps clean up the leaves and apples that fall on the pavement in the autumn, seems to know a bit about everyone in the street. But he also doesn’t have an off button. He can talk for half an hour without taking a breath, until he suddenly notices your toddler shivering in the cold and wonders aloud why you haven’t taken her inside.
I reached adulthood on a wave of evangelical fervour to be a world-changer. Throughout my late teens, at every summer festival and church youth night, we sang the song, “I’m Going To Be A History Maker In This Land” by Delirious. I practically inhaled Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution when it came out in 2006. I imagined myself a central figure in my neighbourhood—we would be in and out of each other’s homes and lives constantly; it would be authentic and messy and they would be so grateful that I moved in.
Now, I sometimes find myself checking if the coast is clear before leaving the house. It’s not that I don’t want to be a good neighbour, but the reality isn’t as easy as I’d idealistically imagined. When we lived in Brussels, we “met” our downstairs neighbour after we found him passed out by the front door one evening and helped him up the flight of stairs to his flat. In Luxembourg, I didn’t speak any of the three national languages. I would pass my neighbours in the basement laundry room, but by the time I’d finished stuffing my dirty laundry into the washing machine and got up the courage to attempt something more than “Bonjour,” they’d be gone again.
I grew up in a village of 500 people. We knew almost everyone. Our neighbours were a fixture in our life—they fed the cat when we were away, their teenagers babysat us, and then I babysat their children. I still pop around for a cup of coffee with one neighbour every time I am back.
What made the difference? Maybe it was because in that small village we were all pretty alike: White, mostly middle class, and nearly everyone on my parents’ road has lived there for at least twenty years. In the last three capital cities I’ve lived in, we’ve been a mixed bunch of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, classes, and languages.
It takes courage to cross those visible and invisible lines and enter into real community, and I’ve rarely had it, if I’m honest. Crossing those lines is uncomfortable and tiring and a massive exercise in humility, and so it has just been easier not to.
We’re planning a move again. Same city this time, but a whole new world in many ways. We’ll be living in a small neighbourhood of houses, neatly slotted in between a massive council estate of mostly white working class, and a borough populated almost entirely by Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi families. Neither community feels remotely familiar to me.
I’m moving ten months after the Brexit vote, with our country’s identity a shaky and uncertain thing. The vote revealed deep fractures in our communities, fractures I’ve no idea how to begin restoring. One thing I do believe is that those fractures are there because we stopped knowing our neighbours. We stopped being willing to suspend our desire for privacy, our need to be right, our pride at being better, and our willingness to get a little uncomfortable in the name of togetherness.
This time, I am moving with a better sense of perspective, I hope. I am not the hero of the story and to pretend I am, is only to invite hurt and disappointment. God isn’t, and never was, calling me to my neighbourhood so that I can bring about its renewal, to somehow be the light in the darkness.
It’s tempting to hold on to the narratives of my early adulthood, because they are so confident, so optimistic, and provide me with the kind of identity my ego would love to claim. But if there is any kind of calling happening, it is simply the call to “come and see” what God is already doing in my new neighbourhood. It’s a call to become comfortable feeling uncomfortable, a call to surrender my privilege by choosing to listen rather than talk, learn rather than teach–to just be rather than constantly trying to be the saviour.
“Blessed are the meek”, Jesus said, which The Message puts this way: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less.” So, as we begin to pack boxes and cancel utilities, I’m making this my prayer for our move: that I would be content with just who I am—broken and beloved. Starting there seems like a good foundation to becoming a better neighbour.